Like most fans, I knew that there would come a day when Prince Rogers Nelson would die — but I never imagined that it would come so soon. When I heard that the legendary artist was dead at 57, I rushed home and sat glued to the television for hours watching old videos and news coverage, mourning with fellow fans on social media.
While the major media focused on Prince’s influence as a singer, musician and businessman, I could not help but think about how he influenced my path to becoming a proud, and unapologetically black, man.
This last point — Prince as a man — was subject to debate throughout his life. Whether wearing make-up, high heels and lace on stage or raising his naturally deep voice into a brilliant falsetto, Prince often challenged the orthodoxy of how black manhood was defined.
As a nine-year-old listening to my older siblings and cousins play such hits as “Little Red Corvette” and “Private Joy,” I was hooked to the grooves long before I (as one who still naively believed that the stork delivered babies) would learn the more racy aspects of the lyrics. By the time some of those same cousins snuck me into the theater to watch “Purple Rain” in 1984, my then 12-year-old mind was more advanced with respect to the theroretical concepts of love and sexuality.
But my understanding of those two distinct topics — love and sex — was unmistakably influenced by older male relatives, some of whom were very macho, aloof and, to an extent, condescending toward women. Such attributes, in their most potent forms, serve as incubators to imbalanced “love” relationships where sexual gratification is the ultimate goal — if not primary purpose — of the opposite sex.
Make no mistake, Prince was the ultimate purveyor of sexual gratification among his peers. Songs like “Darling Nikki,” a favorite of mine at 12, and “Erotic City,” my favorite by 13, piqued my curiosity about the joys of sex. But at the age of 15 in 1987, when my now deceased best friend, Chris Henry, brought Prince’s brand new cassette tape, “Sign of the Times,” for our squad to listen to after school, two songs off that album helped shape my views about manhood.
The first song, “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” described friendship between a man and woman — with no limits — as the true path to deeper intimacy. As a young man whose dad often reminded me that “men don’t cry,” to hear Prince ask “Would you let me comb your hair, could I make you breakfast sometime, maybe we can just go to a movie and CRY together” was one of my early WTH moments. Cry? At a movie? With a girl? If Prince said such was cool, then it must be ok.
Ditto for “Adore,” the most hauntingly beautiful R&B love ballad ever written, where the refrain “love is too weak to define, just what you mean to me” inspired my belief that true love is far more meaningful than a roll in the hay. Because of that influence, there was no surprise that when I and my core group of friends began to marry in the late 90’s, “Adore” often was the first song played at the wedding receptions.
Following Prince’s death, to my chagrin, some of the more negative social media chatter centered around whether he was gay or bi-sexual. Prince trolled his critics on this topic in his early 80’s hit “Controversy” where he asked “am I black or white, am I straight or gay.”
But such foolish debate belies the most important aspect that I will take from Prince’s well-lived life, which is that even if he was gay or bi-sexual at some point in his life, so what? Black men have to push pass this archaic notion that one’s sexual preference determines whether they are a “real man.”
Prince was a real black man, one who being keenly aware of the black struggle for civil rights, who stood resolute against Warner Brothers in 1993 during his battle to control his creative content. For two decades, he did not relent until just this past year, he won the battle with the company.
Prince, a real black man, quietly donated money to civil rights causes, including the family of Trayvon Martin. He held a concert in honor of Freddie Gray and Baltimore protestors. Prince, a real black man, also was focused on ensuring that young black kids had the resources to thrive as entrepreneurs in the Information Age.
In the single “Sign of the Times,” Prince suggests that “some say a man isn’t happy truly, until a man truly dies.” Whether this is true or false, it is something we all will learn when the “grim reaper comes knocking” on our doors, as he sang in “Let’s Go Crazy.” Until then, Prince’s musical legacy, visions of manhood and love for his community will remain with his adoring fans “until the end of time.”
Chuck Hobbs is a trial lawyer and award-winning writer who lives in Tallahassee, Florida. Follow him on Twitter on @RealChuckHobbs